Words Matter

It seems I can’t travel very far these days without passing a hero’s home or place of employment at least according to the signs posted in front yards or at the entrances to various buildings. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that the vast majority of folks living in those homes and working in those buildings are excellent people. My issue is a semantic one regarding the over-application of the term “hero.” As a football coach, I used to remind my defensive staff that if we try to defend everything, we’ll defend nothing, or as a teacher, I like to remind my students that if everyone is an “A” student, the “A” grade doesn’t mean much.

Just as a knife’s edge grows dull with excessive use, so do words. My favorite case in point is the word “awesome,” which should be equivalent in meaning to the word “sublime.” Sublime is an adjective used to describe an experience “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” The problem, however, is that we have so dulled the meaning of the word “awesome” that it has became banal and can no longer appropriately substitute for “sublime.” If I were the King of Words, I’d limit everyone to no more than ten uses of the words awesome and/or sublime in their lifetimes. An “awesome” experience should be one that literally causes one’s jaw to drop and leaves them nearly speechless with only the choice between two words – sublime or awesome – to use in a pale attempt to describe the otherwise indescribable. We pronounce so many experiences to be awesome that the word has been rendered all but meaningless. I love pizza, but pizza is not awesome. I love the television show Schitt’s Creek, but it’s not awesome. I enjoy an occasional fireworks display, but it’s not awesome.

I greatly appreciate men and women in the armed forces and those working as first responders. In fact, my youngest son is a firefighter/EMT. I’m also very grateful for the work performed by those in the medical field. Indeed, I have several family members who serve in that profession. I have never believed, however, that the mere donning of a uniform qualifies one as a hero. Sadly, there are numerous examples of people who behave dishonorably at the minimum and repugnantly at the worst while wearing such uniforms. What matters is how one behaves while wearing that uniform. (For a timely and similar discussion of the importance of a word’s meaning and interpretation, I refer you to an earlier blog post titled “Who Are You Calling a Patriot”: https://wordpress.com/post/tyroth.com/152).

On the left is my son Tanner, the firefighter. This was a training exercise.

The current Covid-19 pandemic has inspired many – with good intentions – to stretch the term “hero” well beyond its accurate designation. We are now supposed to think of grocery store workers, package delivery personnel, assembly line workers, teachers, etc. as heroes as well when the irony is that the vast majority of those folks would rather be seen and thought of as “just doing their jobs.” The larger irony is that the majority of those who do act truly heroically when a situation demands it almost always reject the notion of their being heroes and usually say something humble to the effect of “I was just doing what anyone else would do in that situation” and are embarrassed when labeled as a hero.

Again, please do not misconstrue my point. The bone I pick is with the bastardization of an important term, not with those who courageously face the dangers inherent to their occupation or life situation. God knows we are in desperate need of genuine heroes today, not those of the comic book sort. However, if we continue to apply the term “hero” to people just doing their jobs or making it through their days, we will be unable to appropriately apply the term to those men and women who go to extraordinary measures to behave in a truly Herculean manner. We will lose the ability to even identify those deserving of the title or, more importantly, to use them as exemplars for admiration and imitation.

One of my favorite Shakespearean quotations is found in Act II, Scene ii, of Hamlet. When asked by Polonius, “What do you read, my lord?” Hamlet cryptically responds, “Words, words, words.” The meaning of this smart-assy yet all-too-literal response has been interpreted and debated since they were first performed over four hundred years ago. Where I like to focus is on Polonius’ subsequent question, which is “What is the matter, my lord?” I choose to emphasize the definite article “the” in the question. For me, as Hamlet seconds, THE matter, the one that “matters” most for me as a teacher of English and a writer, is our respect for words and their meanings.

Therefore, please, mind your words. Remember that words have particular meanings. Language, in general, is one of mankind’s greatest gifts whether God or Nature given. Our vast and rich vocabulary is arguably that which most separates us from the animal kingdom and its species’ limited use of snorts and grunts and howls. Most importantly, words represent our most effective means of making sense of the world and of communicating a shared understanding of virtue, righteousness, morality, honor, etc. – and their unsavory opposites – to one another and especially our children.

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Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

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